There’s nothing like citizen advocates, according to Ben Chouake of Englewood, the president of Norpac, which recently led a mission to Washington, D.C.
“It’s remarkable what a citizen advocate can do,” Dr. Chouake continued. “They ask from the heart. It’s less impactful when it comes from a lobbyist. What’s inspiring is to see people get up and travel, come with their kids and parents, take the day off from work, and talk about a heartfelt issue.”
That’s a sentiment Dr. Chouake has heard voiced by Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, and he’s convinced that other members of Congress feel the same way. With that in mind, each year Norpac — a nonpartisan political action committee working to ensure the strength and security of Israel — leads a mission to the nation’s capital.
“We began with 30 people going to Washington,” Dr. Chouake, who first became an officer in 1997, said. “We have 28 buses now.”
Most of the 1,000 plus attendees came from New York and New Jersey, Dr. Chouake said, pointing out that just as the number of mission participants continues to grow, so too does the number of Norpac chapters. They now can be found in Teaneck, Englewood, Queens, West Orange, Highland Park, Long Island, Riverdale, and Westchester.
“We’ve worked hard to spur the development” of these groups, Dr. Chouake said, noting that D.C. participants came from other states as well, including Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina. This year’s mission was co-chaired by Dr. Laurie Baumel of Teaneck, Dr. Richard Schlussel of Englewood, and David Steinberg of Queens.
During each mission — in which participants divide into groups and visit as many legislators as possible — participants relay the organization’s views on a number of issues related to particular legislation in the House and Senate. “We met with 98 percent of the Senate and 80 percent of the House,” Dr. Chouake said. “That’s close to 475 meetings.” Norpac requested the meetings. Because members have relationships with many in Congress, the requests met with great success.
With the organization arranging some 40 fundraising events for members of Congress each year, “a large percentage [of legislators] has been in one of our homes,” Dr. Chouake said. “There’s a smaller percentage in the House, but we’re working on relationships one by one. We hope to have them with everyone. It’s an ongoing effort.”
In addition to organizing individual meetings, Norpac held an opening plenary session at the Washington Convention Center. Speakers included Senators Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), as well as with Representatives Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).
This year’s mission tackled four main issues: continuing foreign aid for Israel, including bolstering anti-missile defense funding; Iranian accountability, including renewing nuclear sanctions in case Tehran violates the agreement and instituting new sanctions against Iran for its ballistic missile program and support of terror worldwide; advocating for members of Congress to oppose efforts to bypass direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians regarding peace talks in the U.N.; and expressing concerns about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and urging members of Congress to take steps to combat the BDS movement’s actions.
Asked if anything was different about this year’s mission, Dr. Chouake said, “Yes. I think the year before we were very nervous about everything. We were talking about JCPOA” — that’s the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran deal — “and to some extent feeling we’d lost that battle.”
Still, he said, the people who came this year “were determined, if they had lemons, to make lemonade, to continue the effort to limit Iranian influence and financial resources. To a large extent, we were successful.
“What’s happened is that over the last several months, despite the leap of faith the administration has taken with Iran, its malevolent behavior has not abated. There are continuing ballistic missile tests, they threaten genocide against Israel, continue to fund terrorism, and continue the slaughter of the Syrian people.
“They are expanding militarization in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and increasing their sphere of influence in Gaza. They are also trying to do that in Yemen, but the Saudis are thwarting them.” That, he said, “along with the arrogant admission that [the administration] lied to the press and Congress, makes the mood for oversight much greater.” (The New York Times’ Sunday magazine ran a profile of deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes on May 8. In that piece, Rhodes talks about selling the Iran nuclear deal to Congress and the public by being less than truthful.)
“Given the circumstances, we’re very confident that ISA [Iran Sanctions Act] will go through,” Dr. Chouake said. “We’re waiting to see what shape and form it will take, whether it will renew sanctions or strengthen them. Senator Menendez and some others would like to strengthen them.”
He added that the Collins-Nelson letter — which Norpac participants asked Senate members to support — is getting “a lot of signatures.” (The letter by Senators Bill Nelson of Florida and Susan Collins of Maine urges the administration to continue the longstanding American policy that limits Iran’s access to dollars.) “We worked on it with the two senators, telling them they should abide by the agreement to prevent Iran from having access to American financial resources. Congress is holding the administration’s feet to the fire because of that.”
Israel still enjoys strong support on Capitol Hill, Dr. Chouake noted. “The mood for support is very strong. We got full funding for missile defense. The bill was marked up the day we were there.” Nevertheless, he said, while support remains strong, “we have antagonistic organizations that are getting a little bit more clever and more organized and making an impact.”
When it comes to BDS, Dr. Chouake said, “our message is to make people understand that this is not a legitimate movement.
“It’s anti-Semitic. When you put out the truth, propaganda becomes less impressive and impactful.” For example, he said, “we showed Senator McCain what they put on the doors of Jewish students’ dorm rooms at Arizona State University and he was visibly upset. He said, ‘This is my state university.’”
Dr. Chouake said that while he wished Norpac missions no longer would be necessary, “they are not only necessary — but are very effective.” He recalled an instance several years ago when Senator Tom Lantos asked the group to include support for an amendment to cut funding to Lebanon in their talking points. “We added it, and he won by 17 votes,” Dr. Chouake said.
Perhaps most important this year, the co-chair, Mr. Steinberg said, “We started a conversation with members of Congress regarding the peace process.
“We have started to work with them to make clear to all concerned that the path to peace in the Middle East requires dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians, and putting Congress on record that any one-sided Security Council resolution must be vetoed.”